The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Taking it Personally

June 14, 2010

Earlier this year, all eyes were focused on Iceland in a very negative way for the second time in 18 months. First their banks collapsed in 2008 which caused many in Europe who had savings accounts there to take a rather substantial financial hit. For example, in the UK local councils were estimated to be at risk for up to £840 million in cash. And secondly, as is pretty well known, the Icelandic ash cloud basically paralysed Europe for the better part of April. (There’s the whole “whaling” thing too – but that’s relatively long-standing.)

The Icelanders, for their part, couldn’t do much. While their government may have been able to do something about the first problem, there wasn’t much they could do about the second: a fact not lost on the Eurovision this year. But still, people directed their anger at the island nation, who single-handedly destroyed weddings, reunions, holidays and possibly Swindon Council’s ability to pick up its recycling.

Making the international personal ain’t exactly a new thing. I know many Americans who wanted to keep a low profile in Europe during the George W. Bush years lest they become the object of a drunken rage on Iraq. Similarly, Israelis, regardless of their political persuasion, get blamed for the policies of their government. Germans of my generation still face WWII jokes – particularly around World Cup time.

But the way the British media has been going on about the criticism of BP, you’d think that Obama had basically taken a giant dump on a portrait of Elizabeth II. The rhetoric, they suggest, is anti-British. Americans and Obama are personally blaming this green and pleasant land for causing the worst oil spill in history.

I’m kind of surprised that this is the case. While there is always much worry about British brands and how the UK is perceived in the world, no one in my mind has ever really gone out of its way to slap the Union Jack on BP (whose name is formally “BP” and no longer “British Petroleum”). Certainly the case isn’t helped that possibly the worst spokesperson in history speaks with a posh British accent – the same posh British accent that every politically correct villain has today in a Hollywood movie (well, maybe other than a Texas accent.)

But the Brits, stiff upper lips and all, are proving to be a sensitive lot. As if Obama could not get mad at a British person without the whole country taking it personally.

But there may be other motivations at stake. Pension funds (probably including mine) heavily invest in BP. Policies which force the country to dole out billions of dollars over the next decade or so could seriously going to hurt a lot of those with retirement plans…

But other than my pension contribution, this raises an interesting question – when is it right to play the international blame game? Does blaming a corporation automatically imply blaming its host country? Does the criticism of BP imply a latent American hostility to Britain? Or should the UK just make itself a pot of tea and calm down again?

After all, regardless of who is to blame, the Gulf is still a mess, BP is in it for billions and Hollywood’s inclination to cast individuals who can put on a good Oxbridge accent as villains, is seemingly well justified.

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard